Three points point the way

Positive impact of the IIHF’s change in point system

06.08.2009
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The most famous overtime goal at World Championships since the point system changed: Russia's Ilya Kovalchuk (#71) scores the game-winning goal against Canada in the 2008 final in Quebec City. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

ZURICH – Studies in Europe and the U.S. have evaluated the impact of different point systems used in hockey and concluded that the three-point system is best. The study shows that it makes the sport more attractive by reducing defensive play towards the end of tied games.

Previously, when games were tied after 60 minutes, and even after five minutes of overtime, teams went home with one point each. Those days ended when major hockey organizations introduced new point systems around the turn of the century.

There are two widespread systems after the era of the two-point system ended. Both have different point allocations, but the goal is the same: to avoid tie games and boring, defensive, secure-the-tie strategies when the game should come to its breathtaking climax.

A 2+1 point system was introduced in the NHL in 1999-2000. The winner got two points, the loser zero points if a game was decided in regulation. If the game was tied after regulation, a five-minute overtime period gave teams a second chance to determine a winner. However, in case of overtime, the winner received two points while the loser was awarded one point, meaning that three points were distributed by going into overtime instead of the two awarded after a regulation-time win. If a game ended in a tie after extra time, both teams would get one point each. (Meanwhile, the NHL added a shootout to completely eliminate tie games.)

Coupled with the additional point for the overtime/shootout loser, the NHL set incentives for offensive play in the overtime in conjunction with the reduction from five to four skaters for the overtime. The additional point gave teams nothing to lose and the chance to play with full risk.

A study in 2004 from Purdue University (USA), compared the four seasons before the change with the three following the move to the 2+1 point system. With the extra point awarded and the shootout after a tie, the percentage of ties after a five-minute overtime period sank from 71.1% to 55.5%.

However, the extra point also had a side effect as the number of games tied after 60 minutes rose from 19.8% to 22.2%. The overtime with a bigger three-point pie to divide became more attractive for both teams – which obviously led to the unintended effect of reaching overtime.

The number of games that were tied after 65 minutes (including games that ended in regulation time) fell from 14.1% to 12.3%.

The different studies proposed alternatives to avoid the let’s-play-for-the-extra-point effect and one of them was the three-point system, which was used by the IIHF for the first time in 1997 in the European Hockey League, and which is now used for all IIHF competitions and in most national leagues.

The three-point system is similar to the NHL rule with one big difference: three points are given to teams no matter what. If a game is won after 60 minutes, the winner gets three points, the loser receives none. If a five-minute overtime period or a shootout have to decide the outcome, the winner will get two points, the loser one point.

However, the main idea remains the same. Both teams have nothing to lose in overtime and can therefore take full risk.

The University of Zurich and the website hockeyfans.ch completed the same research as the 2004 U.S. study for a study in Switzerland recently and took a look at the effect in the two highest Swiss leagues, where the three-point system was introduced in 2006. Before 2006, the Swiss used the two-point system which allowed a tie after a five-minute overtime. With three points awarded, ties were eliminated and a shootout followed after a scoreless five-minute overtime.

The effects are slightly different from the NHL approach. There is no increase in games going to overtime. While the percentage of overtimes ending in a tie clearly decreased, from 69.6% to 56.2% in the top league, and from 62.2% to 47.4% in the second league. More five-minute overtimes ended with a goal, a winner and a loser.

However, compared to the study with the NHL, there were not more games going into overtime with the three-point system. In the Swiss NLA, 18.6% went into overtime with the new system, and 18.5% before the change. In the NLB, the increase was also insignificant, from 15.6% to 15.8%.

So what do the studies tell us?

While there’s a cross-ocean consent that ties do not belong to the hockey culture and overtime periods should be played attractively, it can be argued if it’s good or not to influence the frequency of games going into overtime as in the NHL where games ending in a tie after 60 minutes have increased.

The newest study showed that the three-point system, which has also been used in IIHF World Championships since 2007, promotes offensive play in overtime while maintaining a similar number of games going into overtime from the pre-2007 numbers.

Three years after the three-point system was introduced in all IIHF competitions, the outcome has been a positive one for the sport.

“The study reflects the intended outcome of the IIHF three-point system,” said IIHF Sport Director Dave Fitzpatrick. “Applying the three-point system in our six-team events, which make up the majority of our competitions annually, has the effect that the results on any particular day of the competition can have a dramatic change in the daily standings. This keeps up the interest by fans, media and by the competing teams.”

Fitzpatrick also points out the influence of the system employed in the tie-breaking formula, which is more relevant in a tournament of one week compared to a season-long league. The system eliminated the overall goals scored by a team as a tie-breaking criterion. It is simply not needed anymore because there are no tie games. Neither in the scores, nor when mutual games are needed according to the tie-breaking formula of the IIHF Sport Regulations.

“The three-point system along with the new Game Schedule Bylaw 616, wherein a team that has the higher ranking at the end of a round has the home team advantage in supplemental rounds, has contributed to better quality games and games that go the full 60 minutes plus,” Fitzpatrick says. “The IIHF World Ranking has also assisted in this area as well. In effect, the sport itself has been positively affected with these three acquisitions over the past few seasons.”

MARTIN MERK

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